Nelson: The seafood centre of New Zealand

Nelson is the geographical centre of New Zealand, but the top of the South Island is also the centre of New Zealand’s commercial seafood industry.

Lesley Hamilton reports.

Aquafresh, most well known for their smoked seafood, has a new face at the helm. Jonathan McPherson has always been in seafood, pretty much, but took on Aquafresh in the middle of a pandemic, which he admits to being challenging. “We started negotiations about October 2021 and did the deal in December after a long transition process with the former owners. They had owned Aquafresh for 20 years so there was a lot of information to pass over.” McPherson was with Talley’s Group for seven years and then moved to Singapore for Lee Fish, where he spent four years doing retail development and extending Lee’s fresh fish with frozen products all over Asia. “We decided to come home to New Zealand, but I wanted to go via the Indian Ocean,” he says. “We ended up staying and working in Mauritius for more than three years. We had a scampi operation in Maputo in the South of Mozambique and longlining tuna and swordfish in the North, out of Beira. We started the Mauritian longlining operation as well.” McPherson and his wife finally made it home to New Zealand but says the decision to buy Aquafresh in a pandemic was a risky move. 

“We just had to roll up our sleeves and carry on really.” McPherson inherited an ageing workforce, and he has lost some, many to retirement, including his head smoker. “The master smoker had been with the business for 24 years, so I was losing a lot of experience,” says McPherson. Unlike others in the seafood industry, he has had no trouble getting new people into vacancies in the six months he has had the business., “I started with nine staff and, despite the retirements, now have 12 full time and four part time staff members.” And the new broom is doing a bit of sweeping, with new computer systems, new ordering systems, inventory systems,

new equipment, including new forklifts, and revamped packaging. “We’ve kept the Aquafresh name but have rebranded with a more modern look to the packaging,” he says McPherson says the Aquafresh smoked mussels have been the number one brand in New Zealand for over 20 years and business is still booming. “There used to be only one filleter working to provide the smoked product. We now have a team of filleters out there. I also now buy fish from the fisher and wholesale it fresh.” The Aquafresh business is now 50/50 smoked retail and fresh wholesale.

As well as the line of smoked products, the company is also a Licenced Fish Receiver (LFR), does contract packing for exporters or prepares fish for some fishers who like to deal directly with restaurants. “We get the ice, arrange couriers, and check the packaging. I like to support these guys with the LFR service,” says McPherson. He says his long background in seafood counts for a lot. “I wouldn’t want to be coming into this industry without that background. It’s challenging enough.” McPherson has big plans for Aquafresh. “I would like to expand the flavour profiles of the smoked fish. At the moment we just do natural manuka or beech

smoked but there is a lot of demand for seasoning like Cajun.” Aquafresh is now running 80 product lines and has just started exporting their smoked products into mostly retail outlets in Australia. “I would like to invest in a bit more innovation and technology, particularly around the hard physical work like picking up full bins.”

McPherson is also a big fan of utilising every part of the fish. He can’t make burley bombs fast enough for the demand from recreational fishers. “And that’s great, because the waste is going back into the food chain, not to the tip,” he says.

This blog originally appeared in Seafood New Zealand magazine. October 2022

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